The Into Interview

Saeed Jones Talks New Poetry Collection, Black Queer Wisdom, and Being Alive at the End of the World

As we continue to navigate a world enduring crisis after crisis, we are reminded that we always endured extreme trials and tribulations. But as we traverse through turmoil, we also find strength, wisdom, and joy. Saeed Jones knows this well and encapsulates this within his new poetry collection Alive at the End of the World: Poems

“For this book, I’m thinking again about the collision of the past, present and future, because if you start thinking of the apocalypse, that’s what it is, this feeling when these three different lenses collide all at once.”

All three of these lenses are present as Jones expands these thoughts in his latest work. Having already published two poetry collections prior (When the Only Light is Fire and Prelude to a Bruise), as well as his memoir (How We Fight for Our Lives), Jones continues to offer visceral and unapologetic perspective on the everyday apocalypses of our world in his new poetry collection. 

And while the world feels like it’s ending, the fight to find joy in dark times begins. However, this isn’t a solitary feeling. It’s one felt by a collective and becomes infectious to those around you.  

“I don’t want to romanticize this, but it just also feels like your gratitude, your joy, your sex, your horniness, your desire to put on a good outfit… I don’t know if I’m going to get to do this tomorrow. Let me be fierce today because damn, living is no easy ask.”

Truer words have never been spoken. 

INTO spoke with Jones about the inspiration behind his new poetry collection, exploring grief, violence, apathy, and anger, and acquiring wisdom from Black queer elders. 

What was the inspiration behind your new poetry collection, Alive at the End of the World?

I was interested in the intersection of my personal experiences, one, as a Black gay man making sense of life. Ten years into the experience of losing my mom, she died of heart disease in 2011, which, as I’m sure you know, heart disease in this country very pointedly impacts Black women’s health. So that’s not an apolitical phenomenon. I think it’s directly connected to systemic violence. And so I was reckoning both with just personal loss, but also the political rage about that loss in the middle of this pandemic where we had no choice but to confront and acknowledge the collective, the broader grief. And so it just felt like these different bodies of water were colliding. As I was kind of making sense of how confusing that felt, the phrase “alive at the end of the world”, to live in this paradox, that’s what it is to be alive right now.

 

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Your title makes me reflect on the multiple crisis that we are experiencing now (COVID, police brutality, monkeypox) and then I reflect on how Black and Brown queer people tend to be disproportionately affected by them. Did any of that cross your mind while you were writing the collection?

Absolutely, I mean, that’s just one facet of it. Alexander Chee, who I quote (specifically his essay “1989”) on the book’s epigraph page and that was a protest. I can’t remember if it was Act Up or Queer Nation, another really important group around that time, but again, you read that quote and the way it’s being described, that could have been the summer of 2020. We could be talking about Black Lives Matter. That could be at any point at this moment. 

And just as now, we have to thoughtfully acknowledge that this pandemic is not actually over. The dynamics have changed. As Black queer people, doesn’t that echo the reality of HIV/AIDS? There’s a very specific time period from the early 80s to the early 90s where obviously the dynamics were very different before the health care change, but it’s still going on here and abroad. And I think that is one of the hard-earned pieces of wisdom, that as Black queer people, we don’t get to forget the way our past lives with us. We don’t actually have the luxury of rejecting our past because it’s still here, we’re still enduring it.

“I think I try to be subtle and sneaky, but advocacy is part of my world view and I’m not ashamed of that. I just think everything’s political.”

Again, to be alive at the end of the world, I think it’s just this blurring, you know, of the boundaries between past, present and future, which is actually pretty overwhelming.

You’re exploring grief, violence, apathy, and anger in this particular collection, which is also something that’s prevalent within your other work as well. How do you feel that Alive at the End of the World stands apart from your previous work?

All of my work is certainly rooted in identity and perspective because I think it’s important to help people understand that someone, like a Black gay kid from the South, can be centered in the American story and should. I’m never going to shy away from that. But I’ll say one distinction with Alive at the End of the World is though it’s certainly rooted in my perspective, you’re getting my personal experiences, but I’m going into history. 

I’m bringing forth the experience and histories of incredible Black artists. Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Diahann Carroll, Paul Mooney, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. I’m drawing from their strengths and their experiences and centering them. And of course, I’m going into these different ideas, climate change, mass shootings, that kind of violence. I think reproductive justice and the fight for being able to make decisions about your body and all of the different ways that might manifest. There are poems that directly allude to the Pulse nightclub shooting in one instance. So I think you’re getting a little bit more of Saeed as a historian, less so than as a character.

“I was listening to an interview with André DeShields, who’s in his 70s, the other day and he said, “I’m going to live until I die”. And there was emphasis on live. He was like, “I’m not wasting my time”. And I very much feel that way now. I’m going to live until I die.”

If the project is Alive at the End of the World, it doesn’t really make sense for it to be so focused on one person, because it’s not about one person. And I think I try to be subtle and sneaky, but advocacy is part of my world view and I’m not ashamed of that. I just think everything’s political. And so part of what you see me trying to do is to show that these phenomena, while the experience is deeply personal, it is a systemic phenomenon. It’s not just happening to you. I just think that’s really important because we need to connect the dots. That’s the only way we’ll be able to survive whatever the hell comes next. And so obviously I’m happy to write about myself or how we fight for our lives. I’ve done that. This felt like the goals demanded a different scale. 

Your work is at the intersection of Blackness and queerness, which allows for many people to be seen within your work who normally aren’t. What does that type of visibility mean to you?

What does it mean to me? Gosh, sometimes I don’t even know. I mean, I guess I think about lineage. To think about seeing artists like Lola Flash or D.A. Powell. D.A. is a great friend and mentor. And again to have his forward to be a part of the book, thinking about them as people who are still alive, still here, and then certainly to think of Marlin Riggs or Audre Lorde or Melvin Dixon, I think that visibility, you’re helping whoever comes along behind you, you’re offering them some clues, maybe giving them some keys so they can go a little bit further. 

Related: The Epic Romance of Saeed Jones and Isaac Fitzgerald

I was listening to an interview with André DeShields, who’s in his 70s, the other day and he said, “I’m going to live until I die”. And there was emphasis on live. He was like, “I’m not wasting my time”. And I very much feel that way now. I’m going to live until I die. However, it is important to think about legacy, and we talk a lot about generational trauma, but I also think it’s important for us to think about generational wisdom.

So this is just a way to say that I think actually I feel pretty confident, like in terms of representation and visibility, I’m good. You know what I mean, and this is my opinion, but I’m not looking to media actually, really anymore to see me. I’m fine. My experiences are great. I don’t need Warner Bros. to tell me I exist anymore. 

“I think love is the twin of grief.”

When I was younger and when there was far less representation, yeah, it was mad. You’d be like, “am I even real? Am I even here?” It was like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you know? I’m not invisible. I’m invisible because they choose not to see me. Now, with visibility, I just think about me finding ways to be my authentic self in my writing, even with this book that is not explicitly about the self. But I would like to think that me just being me is helpful in some way to whoever’s behind me, whoever’s coming up. The idea of wisdom.

What do you hope that readers can take away from reading Alive at the End of the World?

I mean, part of what I’ve been thinking about is balance in all things. You feel what you feel. Grief is an especially overwhelming emotion. You don’t do well when you tell someone “tone it down”. But there is something to be set for balance. Learning how to acknowledge the pain, the fear, the anger. Sit with it. Sit with it. And then I argue you have to balance it with joy, with gratitude, with humility. I think for me, that’s part of the dance of the book is me acknowledging that what I am going through, what I’m experiencing is real as hell to me and as intense as hell to me. But I’m not the only one going through this. 

And so it’s okay to reach out, connect. And in that solidarity, find the humility and the gratitude to connect and support other people because many of us are going through this, and I think that’s really important. And then there’s a twin for everything. I think love is the twin of grief. To me, it’s like in the way that the ecstasy and the joy of house music is a direct response to the grief.

Recognize that we kind of have to temper the peril and the anxiety with art, with joy, with laughter, and with appreciation. Find your elders and say thank you. Ask them about what they think about all of this. You know, I think at times, as someone in my thirties, you can get really caught up in how we feel, but it’s like, no, go talk to Lola Flash. Go talk to D. A. Powell. Go talk to people who have lived through multiple apocalypses at this time. And not just to extract knowledge, but to give them the opportunity to express themselves as well. Not just to go to them and pull the wisdom from them, though I’m sure you’re going to get some of that, but also just to honor them as people. I think that’s important.

I mean, a refrain that pops up in my Black queer group text is often we are all we’ve got. We are the only ones I trust, but I’m okay with that because look at the richness, look at the nuances, and how beautiful all of that is. So, I’m good with us.♦

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